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[Page 15 - 18]

The Shtetl

by Rabbi Dr. Jacob Bosniak

Translated from the Yiddish by Eugene Sucov, July 2000

Part A

This shtetl, which was encircled by fields and gardens, was divided into 2 unequal parts by the Dnieper-Bug canal and by 2 smaller canals called Free-canals on both sides. A large and high wooden bridge with smaller bridges on both sides of the river joined the 2 parts of the shtetl. The railroad line operated in the south side of the shtetl, not more than 300 meters from the houses. The residents would always know the time, from morning till night, according to the passenger trains which passed by the shtetl 4 times a day. The whistles of the locomotives were always a welcome noise and the trains with the colored wagons an unending source of interest. The train would cross the river over an iron bridge that was painted a deep green and would park about a mile from the shtetl, near the station which was named after the river, Dnieper-Bug.


gor015.jpg - On the Bridge
On the Bridge


The river, with its 2 bridges and the railroad line with station gave the shtetl a certain prestige and an excuse to feel superior to the neighboring towns. Workers in Antopol, for example, which was much larger, would need to travel to Horodets. Antopoler coachmen would have to bring their passengers to the Horodets train station, which was quite far to go. When one had to write a “get” (bill of divorce) in Antopol, one had to come to Horodets because Antopol did not have a river.[1]

In general, the Horodets home owners felt themselves more cultured than the Antopolers. Because of the river and the railroad line, Horodetsers were in close contact with the outside world. Large and small lumber and wood merchants from all over Russia would stop over in Horodets for a few days on their way to the port of Danzig (today's Gdansk), during which time the lumber would swim in the Horodets canal. In the winter the peasants would bring the lumber to the river's edge. In the spring would start the feverish activity of assembling the barges from which Jews and gentiles alike made their living. During the entire summer barges would be pulled along the river carrying various people from Russia and also from other foreign countries. The foreign voyagers would patronize the Jewish merchants and the town was quite busy.

Along the 2 riverside parks which lined the river's edge, had grown a forest of beautiful trees. There, the youth of the town enjoyed themselvs. In summer they would sail off on a raft or they could bathe in the clean, clear water of the canal. It must be remarked that, for the sake of modesty, the men would bathe not far from the wooden bridge and the women bathed far behind the dam. In this way the dam served as a “mekhitza”.[2]

It must be understood that, of bathing suits, Horodets was not yet acquainted. The gentile men would very often swim through the “mekhitza”… We must admit that the gentiles were better swimmers than the Jewish men. One of them used to bathe under the wooden bridge in the whirlpool and others of them would stand on the bridge and dive into the water.


gor016.jpg - The River
The River


In the winter the canal became the best place to skate. Even old people would enjoy standing on the bridge, contemplating the frozen river. From one side one could see the whirlpool which regulated the water level in the canal. And from the other side could be seen the green railroad bridge with the swiftly running trains. Under the bridge, floating barges which were loaded with long lines of differently clothed peasants, were slowly pulled. The gentiles who loaded and guided the barges down the river lived in cabins on the barges for weeks and months at a time. They would cook their meal over an open fire on the barges. This gave the pranksters in the town the opportunity to throw pebbles or spit into their target, that is to say, into the earthen pots. To actually get a pebble, thrown from the bridge, into a pot was considerted to be an event about which one could boast. Sometimes it happened that one of the peasants could catch a prankster by the hand and then he would receive “broken bones”. But this practise (of throwing pebbles) was finally stopped.

Once in a while a steamship would pass through the shtetl. Then the entire town was turned upside down. Even the strongest teacher in the kheder (religious classroom) had the misfortune of not being able to keep the students in school. Young and old ran to the river to stare at this wonder. The ship was painted in many colors, with high smokestacks, with glittering brass all polished, with white hats and shiny buttons on the sailor's uniforms. Everything was wondered at, remarked about and discussed endlessly.

Part B

The riverside parks with the high, strong, fully grown trees on both sides of the river, were the shtetl's place for pleasure strolls. On Shabbat and holiday mornings many people, mainly the youth, met each other in the riverside parks and discussed their problems or the news of the day. In the hot summer's day, it was always cool there. Sitting on the grass and contemplating the twinkling waters of the river was a real delight. There the youth flirted or read a book, mainly from the government's forbidden list. That's how we spent our time.

And when the highway was built between Horodets and Antopol, it also became a place for strolling, especially on Shabbat afternoons. Then the young people would run onto the highway to meet boys and girls from Antopol.

But the river was the overriding reminder that the town was split into 2 unequal parts, “The Street” and “The Market”, The “Street”, that is, the Jewish street, extended for a distance of 4-5 blocks from Old Man Saul's tavern to Gedalya Yudel's shop. Beyond this shop began the Gentile street, or, as we called it, Kobrinner street

(since it led to the county seat in Kobrin). There, a Jewish child was afraid to take even one step lest the gentiles would throw stones at him, set dogs on him, or just plain insult Jews.

Only one Jew, Tsadok the hunchback, decided to live right in the middle of Gentile street with his wife and daughter. He was a small, lively Jew, with a hump in front and a hump in back. His throat itself was scarcely visible. He had black hair and sharp black eyes, with a black pointed beard and a face burned by the sun. He was always ready with a smile and a happy word for everyone. He was one of the regular prayer leaders in shul, standing near the furnace behind the bimah (prayer stand). He was by trade a plumber but he would also smooth fur pelts. Often he would also work on the river bank near the barges. He was a happy man, contented with however much he earned. Even though it was long walk from his house to the beit midrash (study hall), he never failed to pray with first minyan (quorum of 10 men needed to start praying) at daybreak.

The street was a long one. From one side it went toward Kobrin and from the other side it went toward the village Makhvedevitsh. On this street could be found the beit-midrash, and, on the side, in an alley, was the Great Cold Shul. In this place were also, forgive me for mentioning these in same sentence, the bath house and the cemetery. Between the study house and the Great Shul was the High Shul where the wedding canopy would usually be placed.

The greater part of the town was called the “Market”. In the Market were located the Jewish houses as well as the shops, which were larger and finer and spaced over a larger area than those located on the “Street”. The “Market” didn't have any pipe shops as, for example, were on Kobrin street. The shops in Horodets stood in an empty place, nearly 4 blocks in area, on which grew grass in the summer and was quite muddy in the winter. The houses on both sides of the “Market” were quite nice and large and were inhabited by several rich home owners. There, also would be found the Russian Greek Orthodox church and the Polish Roman Catholic church.

On the eastern side, opposite the Market, on the way to Antopol, not far from the Post Office, stood the Pravaslann monastery. It had a stone parking lot next to a great meadow which belonged to the priest. The walls were painted white and the roof with its cupolas were painted either blue or green. Never had a Jew ever placed even one foot inside the monastery, except for Aaron Leib, the miller. The monastery, with its trees surrounding it, generated a gracious charm to the the entire town.

Opposite the Market, on the southern side, stood the government public school. There, a few hundred peasant children of various parents went to study during the 3-4 winter months of the year. One individual teacher would teach all these children reading, writing and arithmetic at the same time, in one great room. The children would sit, crowded together on long benches. The little that they learned in the short winter session would be completely forgotten during the remaining months of the year when they would have to work with their parents in the field.

Next to the school stood the “Pazsharne” ( militia) command and the police station from Volast, which had its own lockup for people who were arrested and needed to be held overnight or longer and then transported with other convicts to various parts of the country.

The Catholic church stood in a side alley of the Market which we called the Landowner's street. It was an old, high wooden building, unpainted and overgrown with weeds which gave the impression of neglect. In truth, at one time these neglected buildings belonged to the Russian Orthodox church and those which remained on the Market used to be Polish. But, after the Pavskanye (Polish insurrection), the Poles were removed and the Russians took over for themselves the nicer buildings. On this Landowner's street lived Shakhnav the Uriadnik (police constable), the Diak and a few Polish gentiles. At the time of the first World War there were hardly any Poles in Horodets. We could count them on our fingers, they were so few.

From the other side of the Market stretched a large Christian street. It was called the Pozmen street since it travelled to Pozmen. This particular Christian street was populated only by fervent Christians, so Jews very seldom went there, unless for business. From Pozmen street Jews would receive much trouble. Especially in the conscription weeks, when the Christian recruiters would get themselves drunk and generate a riot or start beating the Jews.

Usually the Market was empty, without shops. But when there was a holiday, hundreds of peasants would fill the street and sometimes also with horses and wagons. Then the Market became lively, and sometimes a bit too lively. The holidayers would show up on the first of each Russian month. Horodets had to thank the old landowner, Shter, and his wife, who had decreed that in Horodets there would be each month a holiday. The old Shter was the sole owner of Horodets. To him belonged the entire town and its surroundings. Everyone had to pay him rent money (Platzaveh). The old Shter had strong family connections; he was descended from the Romanov family and was a strong member of the high society of Petersburg. And for this we must give praise. Shter and his wife were very good Christians and had, for the Jews, a very friendly feeling. For example, one can mention the fact that when the old Shter would drive by the Jewish houses , he would throw coins for the Jewish children. (I don't know who learned from whom: the old Shter or the old Rockefeller)

And a thank you is owed to the Landowner by the first member of the Moyer family in Horodets.. That was Isaacs Moyer, the one to whom the landowner gave a goat. Especially we should remark on his friendliness in the summer when, after the midday shabbat meal, he would let the children into his palace grounds without restraint and allow the public to lie on the grass as a father under his vineyard and listen to music from a phonograph.

Part C

The cultural life of the Horodets Jews stood at a high level. In various houses came copies of the Hebrew periodicals Hamelitz (The Advocate), Hatsifirah (The Siren) and Hazman (The Time). Other Jews received Yiddish newspapers such as Yod and Friend. The custom was to have several partners share in the cost of one newspaper and to read the paper in sequence. Till the paper would reach the last partner it would either be torn or the news was already old.

A total revolution in newspaper reading was brought in during the summer of 1912. A newspaper was brought down from Warsaw, called Moment. It had installed Tsadok the hunchback as its agent. He used to carry the Moment every afternoon to his subscribers who were satisfied from day to day. The Moment would arrive every day on the same train. The public would buy the Moment as if it was water for making matza. The news and the romances were packed together just like dinner plates. Young and old, men and women would scramble to read this paper.

Many years have gone by; various rulers has Horodets had. People were born, people died. Dreams floated up, dreams were torn down. Only one dream still remains alive in the hearts of many Horodets Jews. To see once more the old town; once more to stand on the place where the crib used to stand, and even to see the grave of a father, a mother, a grandfather, a grandmother. And now? The Jewish Horodets is no more. Even a gravestone is not left standing in its place. Empty is the town, desolate, destroyed. In one's heart is a wound, a desecrated empty space. Let us fill up this void with the ideals of rebuilding our land, Eretz Israel.

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Translator's note:
  1. The get needed to specify the exact location where the get was written. A river was a permanent and easily identifiable geographical location, so it was preferred over a location without geographic markers. Return
  2. The mekhitza was a curtained separation between men and women while they were praying in the shul. Return

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