As I traveled by train through Berlin, I strongly felt the Nazi presence. Military forces were everywhere, especially on the trains. In Poland you could feel the presence of Hitler's propaganda. In Galicia, where there was a majority of Ukrainians, most eagerly awaited Hitler's arrival so that they could feel free to murder the Jews and plunder their property. At that time, many Horodenkan Jews wanted to abandon Poland to go either to America or Israel. But their daily suffering prevented all but a few from doing so. All doors everywhere were shut.
I recall traveling by coach to Sniatyn to visit my father. It was a quiet, early morning. I recall how we traveled through the village of Serafinitz, and how the murderous Ukrainians wanted to stop us by reining their horses into our path. But our coachman was cleverer than they were, and he tore off in a gallop, avoiding them.
The Ukrainians shouted after us, "Just wait, you dirty Jews, when Hitler comes we will get whatever we want from you."
And he came, indeed. I can see it now: The murderous gangs of Germans,
Ukrainians, and Poles falling upon our weak brothers and sisters old and
young alike killing them without mercy. And that is why the ancient cry
of every Jew explodes from my heart: "We shall never forget!"
The district of Horodenka encompassed forty-eight villages, and in them the Ukrainian population was about twenty thousand people. In almost all of these villages there lived several Jewish families, who with great strength in their souls uprooted themselves from the city centers to seek their livelihood in the villages. However, it wasn't easy for Jews to give up the conveniences, security, and warmth of being with the city folk to take upon themselves the loneliness and alienation of living among a primitive and envious folk. This isolation intensified the feeling of exile and they acquired the taste of exile within exile. However, only a select few were able to continue their lives year after year to maintain the genealogy of the Jewish villager, who represented a special type of person in the chapter of life of Jews in exile.
The first Jew to come to the village was generally someone who rented a saloon. This way of earning a livelihood was harsh and bitter and demanded constant interaction with the non-Jews who gathered there during their holidays. They often became intoxicated, and more than once, fistfights broke out among them. There were also threats directed toward Jews, whom they hated intensely. The loneliness that oppressed the Jews during weekdays was intensified sevenfold on the Sabbaths and holidays. On those days, the villager was forced to forgo being able to pray in a congregation, to hear kedusha and barchu (prayers which can't be said alone-trans.) from the cantor, and had to be satisfied with an orphaned and grieving prayer.
And who can describe the great pain of raising children in the village! There were two possibilities open to the individual Jewish villager in educating his children, and both involved great expense: to send his children to a nearby city to attend the cheder there, or to hire a teacher, that he would be willing to pay, to come to his home. Under these harsh conditions, the villager had to be satisfied with a very minimal education for his children to be able to read Hebrew from the prayer book. The father had to watch with a painful heart, as his son grew up to be an am haaretz, an ignorant person. We also cannot minimize the effect of the non-Jewish environment to which both their sons and daughters were drawn. More than once, this attraction ended up tragically, with children changing their religion, leaving their parents' home, and casting a stain upon the entire family: fathers did not want to forgive the child who betrayed her family.
Sometimes an outside Jew would drop into this special environment. He might have been a wanderer going from city to city knocking on the doors of philanthropists. I still recall one who was graciously made welcome in the home of a Jewish villager, and honored with a wholesome meal and a place to stay over. The entire household would then try to get close to him and drink his words with thirst. Sometimes he would bring regards from the host's relatives or friends, whom he came across in his meanderings.
Other times, he would just convey news and information about what was happening in nearby villages or in the big wide world. Often the traveler would be a Torah scholar, who transmitted a God-fearing air. In the middle of conversing with him, the host might remember something from his childhood learning, and would hold tight to a brief teaching or story from the guest that he had never heard before. In the morning, after prayer and breakfast, the traveler would go on his way with a generous donation from his host, who would bless him for the pleasure that the guest provided from his visit. He considered this visit to be live regards from the larger Jewish community to which he belonged and with which his soul yearned to connect.
However these visits were relatively rare and the rest of the days of the year, the Jewish villager remained in his sad state of loneliness. Only when the Days of Awe came would he leave his house and property, and entrust, or perhaps practically abandon his property to the hands of non-Jews the house with its furniture, the field whose crop had not yet been gathered and travel with his family to the city, to spend the holy days together with all the house of Israel, to pour out his conversation before the creator just like everyone else and to absorb the atmosphere of the shul that was so far away during the rest of the year. And when the holidays were finished, he went back to his village, cleansed and purified from materiality, and filled with hope and faith that his prayer had been accepted, and that the new year would bring only good on its wings, for him and his family and for all Israel.
This description of the lonely Jewish villager was actually known to me only by hearsay. During my childhood, there were about 30 Jewish families in our village of Stetseva. This was just enough to mitigate the harsh loneliness. Most of the families in the village were related to each other by marriage. On Sabbaths and holidays they would gather for communal prayer, with a minyan. They did not travel to the city for the Days of Awe, but, because they want all to fulfill the directive of The glory of the King is in a large populace, two adjoining groups would gather together for one minyan and they would summon a cantor with a distinguished appearance and a pleasant voice, to help them celebrate the holiday in all its details.
The relationship between the Jewish villager and the general population was decent enough. In spite of the vast difference in religion, in their way of life, and in external appearance, neighborly feelings existed between them, which were based on shared daily experiences. These connections were closer among those Jews who were actually involved in working the land. This joint activity and their common concerns even forged a common language. Though these similarities were not enough to uproot mistrust or to diminish the embedded hatred toward the Jew, it was enough to enable proper neighborly relations during stable times.
There was one special village near Horodenka, the village of Chernovitz. Most of its residents were Jews, and most of them were engaged in farming. This city also stood out for their communal activities; for a certain period after the World War One, they even had a Hebrew school.
The landowners occupied a special place among the villagers. In all the neighboring villages, a substantial amount of land belonged to one family, generally a wealthy Polish family who worked the land with peasant villagers who were supervised by a foreman. Sometimes the land was leased out to the tenants who had to pay a portion of the crops to their landlords. This was a residue of the lifestyle of the feudal system, when the land generally remained with the rulers, and the farmers got a very meager portion of the produce, usually just enough to sustain life. In the beginning of the twentieth century, the farmers were free and independent and owned their own portions of land. Still the primary landowner retained his position.
Since most business was in the hands of the Jews, all the landowners needed Jews. Many Jews thus succeeded in winning the trust of the Polish landowners and were involved in their daily business dealings. Many Jews took supervisory jobs. With the passage of time, many plots of land were transferred to wealthy Jews, and the class of Jewish landowners arose. Most of these lived in the village, in an estate that was in the courtyard of the farm. But there were also those who lived in the city and ran their farm through supervisors.
Also in Stetseva, the village where my father lived during his last years and where I spent my childhood, there was a Jewish landowner named Yehudah Cohen, a very learned and educated Jew. His brother Dr. Cohen was a lawyer in Horodenka, who also stood out for his knowledge of Hebrew and his Zionistic leanings, unlike most Jewish lawyers who were usually assimilated. Only in the years after World War One did groups of Jewish intelligencia get involved in political life.
Beside Yehuda Cohen, there were several other Jewish landowners in the villages around Horodenka: Yossel Zeidman in Serafince, Bezner in Potoczysk, Nota Goldberg in Strel'Cheye, the Baron family in Semenuvka and Rakovets, and the Ruble family in Kornev. One of the citizens of Horodenka also joined the landowner class in the last years before 1914, when he purchased the estate in Czerniatyn. This was Berel Shpierer, who reached a level of affluence in a few short years, and was for a time also the communal head in Horodenka. He was a modern Jew, and in his youth was a member of the Maskilim group in the city. The Zionists, who supported his choice, also accepted him. The other estate holders did not participate in communal matters. They didn't turn to Zionism but also were not assimilationists. In the years after World War One, these estates sometimes served as training camps for pioneers.
The differences between the village Jews and the city residents were great. The village Jew in his coarse and simple garments, with his primitive customs and lack of culture, often served as a target for sarcastic darts thrown by the city Jew, who emphasized his superiority at every available opportunity. However, these Jews were bound with every fiber of their being to the collective Jewish nation. They rejoiced in community happiness, and were the first to suffer when a troublesome time came. They had a special merit, these folk who survived by picking food from the ground, and most of them physically fulfilled the historic destiny: By the sweat of your brow, shall you eat bread.
The population of Serfinitz was exclusively Ukrainian and was made up of one thousand families at the beginning of the twentieth century. The Ukrainians, who were mostly involved in agriculture, were fervent nationalists and also had some intelligent folks amongst them. In the short duration of their independence after the First World War, they exhibited a great deal of animosity toward the Jewish citizens of the village. In those times, the soon-to-be famous outlaw, Tchakovsky, also known as "Harim," was in charge of the region of Horodenka. He sought to arrest all Jews from the village, blaming them for engaging in espionage. The reason for this was that Jews gathered to daven the evening prayers. They were imprisoned for several weeks, under this charge.
Among the forty-eight villages in the Horodenka region, Serafinitz stood apart from the others in its fervent anti-semitism. It was the focus for organizing the paramilitary group Sitsch which carried out underground operations with the goal of uniting "Little Ukraine" with the Great Ukraine within the Russian domain.
Among the Ukrainian populace there lived approximately forty Jewish families, and among them the well-known Zeidman family, who were the so-called "aristocrats" of the village. Their estate was in the middle of an enormously large field, with two inns, two mills, and much livestock. The livelihood of the Jews consisted of the following occupations: estate stewards; foremen or overseer; or bookkeepers. A few families made a living by leasing out use of the mills and the inns; some even worked as farmers, working the land alongside the Ukrainians. Some supported their families with little shops, trading in grain and livestock, and in luft gesheften literally making deals as middlemen between the town's Jews and gentiles. The Jews of the town were mostly middle class, but there were a few families who didn't have steady work, and they had a rough time "making shabbos" (earning enough money to provide for the shabbos table).
In the stretch of land fronting the "aristocrat's" residence was a small synagogue in which the Jews from both "points" gathered on Shabbos and Yom Tov to pray, study Torah, and chat about the state of the world. The Jews in Serafinitz were very pious and the rabbi could interpret with all nuances of a page of gemara; no stereotypical "country bumpkin" Jews lived in Serafinitz. In spite of living in a gentile environment, the Jews went about the streets on Shabbos in talis and streimel.
Before the First World War, several dozen Jewish youth emigrated to America. Later, in the years following the war, young people became more involved in charting the course of their education; teenage and young adult students became inflamed with the ideals of Zionism. Some of them went on to Eretz Israel as pioneers. At the same time there awoke in the youth the yearning for building community, being together as one and advancing a common culture. They organized evening presentations and made connections with the youth in the neighboring villages and towns. The quality of the evenings was exceptionally high.
The first Jews settled in Serafinitz at the beginning of the 1900's. The first was Abraham Zeidman, who was an important fish dealer. He and others established the commercial life along the river. In the beginning, he lived alone in Czernovitz. Later he helped several Jewish families from the village of Bobin, in Bukovina, to move there with their households. Among the first were the families of Reif and Hoffman.
Following Abraham Zeidman's purchase of the Serafinitz property, other Jewish families settled in the village. They were mainly his relatives, with the same last name. Finally, he himself settled in Serafinitz. He was a very pious Jew, a Torah sage, a knowledgeable Jew and a good businessman. He arranged for his son, Yossele, to marry Rochel, the Berezaner rabbi's daughter. Yossele, although also a learned man, was more at home in the moden world.
After his father's death, Yossele Zeidman lost his inheritance. He had three children, two sons and a daughter, but he didn't derive any pleasure from any of them. His daughter, Devora died young after a failed engagement. The youngest son, Alter, against the wishes of his father, married an Italian Christian woman in Vienna before the First World War. He owned a clothing factory, but was unfortunate in this line of work. He constantly depended upon his father's assistance, and when this was once refused, he committed suicide in desperation. The oldest son, Moshe, was not destined to go down the right road either. He lived a spendthrift life which caused problems constantly with both his father and his wife. His mother, who was descended from a rabbinic family, fell victim to the misery he caused.
In most of the villages in eastern Galicia, a substantial portion of the village lands belonged to one family, the estate landowner. Over the course of many years, many estates passed over to the hands of Jews. In the environs of Horodenka, there are a significant number of Jewish landowners: for example, the family of Baron in Rokovitz, the family of Rubal in Korniv, Bozner in Potochische, Goldenberg in Strel'cheye, Zeidman in Serafinitz, Yehudah Cohen in Stetseva, Berl Shpeirir in Stcherniatzin. The Jews found their place in the village, also as lessors of estates and farms, lessors of saloons that generally belonged to the master of the estate. So too they functioned as advisors and administrators of work and businesses on different estates.
Among the Jews in the village of Korniv one man stood out. Reb Eliezer Rubal, an estate owner and the father of the large, extended Rubal family. On his estate, the majority of the village Jews found their livelihood for many years up to his last moment. During the period of the Russian conquest in 1940, Reb Eliezer was exiled to Siberia together with his entire family, and there he died in the year 1942, in the city of Samiplotinisk. I alone, his son in law, succeeded in escaping from Siberia with my wife, my son, and my sister in law Chana. We returned to Poland at the end of the war, and from there we made Aliya in 1950.
The center of Jewish life in our village was the minyan, a temporary synagogue for Sabbaths and holidays, where the Jewish villagers met for communal prayer. These meetings naturally preserved the tie among the Jewish villagers. There they would consult with each other about their affairs, bring up their concerns, and discuss the education of their children. The location of the shul, until the First World War, was in the house of the Rubal family, the owner of the estate. Afterward, the minyan moved to the family of Blukopf.
From an economic perspective, the Jews in our village were not that different from the Jews in the other villages. Even though the village atmosphere affected them, the work of the land did not serve as their primary source of livelihood. They were separated in the sense that each one saw it as an individual obligation and honor to dedicate at least a portion of his time to work the ground and harvest the crops with his own hands. This attitude helped significantly to lift up their image in the eyes of the farmers, the natives of the village.
One should point out that each family tried with all its power to acquire a secondary education for their children, as an introduction to higher education. Therefore, the children of Horodenka were sent to other cities to complete their studies. On this topic it's proper to single out especially Rabbi Nechemia Lagshtein, the Cohen, who enabled his two sons, Shlomo Zalmen, known as Zunia, and Mordechai, to receive a higher education. They both became lawyers in Horodenka in the years before the Holocaust, and both were active Zionists.
In general the impact of the Zionist movement was not so noticeable in the city. The mature ones were immersed with all their might in concerns of making a livelihood, and the maturing youth were mostly found outside their city. Many years before the First World War, messengers of the Zionist movement reached our village, and tried to encourage the village Jews to acquire plots of land in Israel, for the sake of settling the land, at the latest possible date; however, they did not succeed in sufficiently arousing enough interest and talent to transform the thought into action. After the Balfour Declaration, when there was a diligent emigration movement to Israel, there was one family, the family of Yossel Shwartz, of blessed memory, that focused its efforts and sent its oldest son, Zelig Shwartz (now called by the name Shechori) to Israel, as a pioneer of the entire family. However, not many years passed before this multi-branched family, the father, the mother, the married daughter and her husband, the sons and the daughters, all immigrated to Israel and settled there. This was an outstandingly organized Aliya, but to our sorrow, there were not many like it in the communities of the diaspora. This was also the only family among the Jews of Korniv who was completely saved and did not taste of the Holocaust and its upheavals.
According to what the survivors of the Underground told me, the Jews of Korniv remained in their villages till the last action against the Jews in the month of Elul 5702, (September 1942). My brother, Shlomo Zalmen, of blessed memory, was among them. Even though he had the opportunity to save his own life, he refused to separate from his fellow villagers, and he was deported together with them to Horodenka. There Avraham Shtondik and the two sons of Wolf Lagshein, Aharon and Meshulam, were designated for death. The rest of the village Jews were sent in train cars to the death camp of Bolztz, together with the remaining Jews of Horodenka.
Among these villagers were scattered several Jewish families, and there were some villages where the number of Jewish families reached multiples of tens. In Daleshova, before the First World War, there were ten Jewish families who had inhabited the village for many generations. After the war, however, only five families remained; the rest of the families scattered to nearby cities, and a group of them fled, immigrating to America. The Jews of the village were mainly involved in farming, and some of them in business for how could a Jew separate completely from business and not go every Tuesday to market day in Horodenka? In general, poor village peasants, who were forced to work as day laborers in order to eke out their living, did the actual work of the fields that were owned by the Jews. They were very jealous of the Jews who lived a relatively more comfortable life, without having to work so hard.
Almost every day, Jews from the neighboring cities would come to the village. Their livelihood came from visiting the village on a daily basis to buy and sell; afterward they would return to their homes at night. The place that they lodged in the village was called the Kalmanke, where they could obtain tallisim and tefillin for prayer, and where they could obtain breakfast after daavening.
The woman, who was known as Di Kalmanke, was Baila, wife of Kalman Katz, and oldest daughter of Fruma and Yosef Shneur. Yosef Shneur was a wealthy Jew, who had no sons, but did have three daughters. He wrote a sefer Torah that, before his death, he directed to be given over to his learned son-in-law, Kalman Katz, who would say his kaddish. So the Torah remained in the house of Kalman Katz, where every Shabbos many Jews from the neighboring villages would gather to pray. After the death of Kalman Katz in 1915, the Torah remained in the hands of the Kalmanke, and when we had to leave the village because of the Russian invasion, the Torah was transferred to one of the farmers to guard until we returned to the village. When we returned to the village after the war, the Torah was restored to the Kalmanke, and she immediately had it checked, as prescribed by law. From that time on, people began to gather again in her house to pray on the Sabbath, as in the days when her husband been alive. Pursuant to her request, the Torah stayed as an inheritance in the family of her daughter Raize Bidar, whose husband fell in war; she remained a widow with two daughters. These two widows, the mother and daughter, ran the very large farm with great skill.
The Jewish youth in the villages were generally wholesome children who received their education in the central cities or in more distant cities, and weren't much different than city children. However, I must point out that there was always a palpable barrier between the village and the city youth, both in school and on the street. The villagers would wait with longing for vacation, where they would meet up with their peers from their own village and from nearby villages. When the school season would end, many of them would return to their villages and would be occupied, like their parents, in farming and in business. In each of their hearts was implanted an abundant love for the village of their birth.
Most of the youth belonged to the Zionist movement, and they longed to move to the land of Israel. In the evening, they would gather for activities and clubs with friends from the city, who in the village had been involved in training teachers of young children. These teachers were close to the village children, and knew how to reach them. Many of the village youth went out for training, but only a few of them merited to move to the land of Israel, and they scattered to all parts of the land.
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