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[Pages 59-61]

The Town Autonomy


By Shlomo Libers

Translated by Hannah Kadmon

[Translator's notes in square brackets]


A. The “Oprave”

The “meshtsanske oprave” [“residents-management”] of Horodets, was made up entirely of Jews: A Rabbi, a starosta [distinguished elder of town], 13 Jewish representatives, a scribe and an administrative office with a big list of registered, missing and departed. Despite the fact that the “meshtsanske oprave” was entirely Jewish, the town-elder was, for about 10 years, Afen the feldsher [old-time barber-surgeon]. He was the only gentile resident in Horodets who was a meshumed [a Jew who converted to Christianity].

How does an apostate become a leader of Jews? Here is the story. Sixty years ago [in 1889] R' Shalom Kostrinsky was the town-elder and his brother Motye was a Rabbi. Both were distinguished Jews who inherited from their father, R' Itzik, the active participation in community affairs. The two brothers were Karliner Chassids. The mere title of “Chassids” cast a shadow on them. The “Misnogdim” of the town started to grumble: “what is going on? The Kostrinskis have gotten hold of everything for themselves, just like Moses and Aaron in their time.” [The two leaders of the people of Israel in the desert after the departure from Egypt].

They continued the gossip and “fermented” it until Shalom was forced to flee to America, and Mendl the miller was elected as town-elder. Mendl was a very honest Jew. He could learn and write, but only from right to left [Yiddish]. Unfortunately, he could not write from left to write [Polish or Russian]. Here, the governor himself interfered and offered a compromise: Afen would be the town-elder. Afen was quite a good person. People said that he was originally a Horodetser, one of the kidnapped Jewish children during the reign of Nikolai I.

[Russian Tsar Nicholas I issued the “Statute on Conscription Duty” in 1827. Jews were subject to military service at a quota (four conscripts per each thousand subjects all over Russia) and were required to provide conscripts between the ages of 12 and 25. These under 18 were sent to “cantonist” (pre-military) schools, were converted, in the process, and at the age of 18 would serve in the army for 25 years. The main goal behind the compulsory military service was “Russification” of Jews and other non-Russian minorities. The unpleasant task of implementing conscription quota fell to the community. Since many of the males eligible for recruitment did everything to run away, hide or bribe, orphaned children were lured or snatched with the help of informers and kidnappers – indigenous members of the community, skilled in deception, appointed by the leaders of the community]

Leibl, son of Israel, became the scribe. He was a tall person, with a “Franz Yosef” beard – one part pointing to the left and one to the right – as if meaning to say: “when I wish - I go to the left and when I wish - I go to the right. I still waver where to turn.”

As mentioned, Afen was a baptized Jew. It was distasteful to the Jews of Horodets that an apostate would be their town-elder. They saw to it that their town-elder was again a Jewish Horodetser. They actually succeeded and R' Motye Kostrinsky was installed as town-elder. In 1899 Tsar Nikolay II granted amnesty and R' Shalom returned from America and became the Rabbi of the town until 1915, when the Germans conquered Horodets. After Motye Kostrinsky's death, Izikl Motyes (Izrael) became the town elder. He was a Jewish lumber merchant, who knew very little about community affairs and hardly knew the ispravnik [police officer]…

Izikl's office did not last long – only a couple of years - until the “oprave” stopped existing under the occupation of the Germans during WW1.

What were the functions of the “oprave”? According to the laws of the Russian Tsar, many people were registered in the location where they originally lived. They could reside in Warsaw, in Petersburg or in any other place but they were registered in the place where their fathers or grandfathers were born, while they themselves were never in that place.

When they needed a passport, they had to ask for it in the location where they were registered, where they were unknown. Naturally, they had, therefore, to pay the scriber, town-elder and the rest of them [where they were registered]. They were not allowed to report for the draft where they were residing. They were forced to travel to that place were they were registered and report there. All payments that applied to the inhabitants of the town had to be paid also by those who were registered there, even thought they were residing in another state or town. Thus, the registered people who were actually living in a different place, had to carry a bag of troubles. Those of the registered who were living far and had the means, used to hire somebody, a cripple, who traveled and reported in place of the real person to be conscripted. Thus, by such means, the rich freed themselves from serving in the army. Of course, only the rich could accomplish such measures.

In the past, Horodets - together with Divin, and afterwards together with Antipolye - had to deliver only one soldier a year. In other words, Horodets had to deliver one soldier every two years.

The period of “abduction” [Tsar Nicholas 1] left a great deal of heart-break in Horodets. The “kidnappers” often used to get off badly. In retaliation, people burned their houses or created other troubles for them. “Lovshtzik” (kidnapper) became a nickname to imply malice, lack of pity or compassion, evil and malevolence. This nickname accompanied the “kidnapper” to his grave and followed his children and grandchildren.

To manage that difficult situation some order was introduced. There was a custom to buy a soldier, paying him 500-600 rubles. When they had already bought the “victim”, they used to feed him well until he was drafted.

They collected the money from various towns in the region and every Jew was committed to donate to the recruit fund [rekrutave=recruit].

Later, it was ruled that everyone must report to the draft, but not all were conscripted. There were “pravilne” (gezetslikhe) [according to the law], third, second and first status. The first status included single sons. They were exempt from service. The gezetslikhe hid themselves so that those of the other two statuses would pay them, and if not, the ones exempt from service would be drafted as well. Therefore the males of these two statuses used also to hide until the quota of recruits was filled. A soldier would get 200-300 rubles as a prize from those who were released.

The Tsar's government saw that this hiding would not recruit too many soldiers, so they proclaimed that if someone did not report for the draft, his closest family had to pay a fine of 300 rubles. This rule applied only to Jews.

Then the Jews once again found a solution. They did not want to serve the Russians for various reasons: it meant eating non-kosher food, being subjugated to coarse, ignorant and impudent gentiles and being humiliated as Jews, as the Tsar's authority always thought up new inhuman decrees against Jews.


B. The “Korovke”

The “korovke” [from the Polish word for a cow], a tax on meat, was an old law, that operated in the Polish and Lithuanian Jewish communities. The Council of Four Lands had already dealt with various problems pertaining to the “korovke” and its role in Jewish life, and it was mainly known as mendele's “tax” [tax on kosher meat]. However, what role did it play in the life of the Jews of Horodets?

The “korovke” was a fixed tax on meat that they had to pay for slaughtering – from an ox to a hen - and the payments were to be spent on the needs of the Jews in the town.

Was it really like this? Did the Jews benefit from the “korovke” payments? How did they handle the payments?

First of all, there was an official government transaction once in three years. The price was 400-500 rubles a year. Whoever “bought” [a sort of lease] the “korovke” had to deposit that price at the hands of the “oprave”. It was customary that no one was permitted to advance the money except the representatives of the “oprave”, who knew the price. Afterwards they used to “sell” [the lease] over the pulpit in beit hamidrash [study house and also place of prayers] to whoever offered more. However, it was not “allowed” to offer too much, because anyway the money was not used for Jewish purposes, and if someone bid too much, the community excommunicated him. [The editor, A. Ben-Ezra, comments that an excommunication pertaining to “korovke” was practiced more than 300 years ago according to the register of the Lithuanian states. Page 210] – nobody was permitted to visit the banned person's home or speak with him, and he could not slaughter in the town.

Whoever bought [“leased”] the “korovke”, used to open a register with receipts and the slaughterer was not allowed to slaughter without a receipt from the holder of the “korovke”. The price for a hen was 2 kopeks, and for a cow- 2 rubles. If a housewife wanted to have a hen slaughtered for a sick person (no healthy person in Horodets would eat any hens), she had to go, first, to Jews who held the “korovke”, get a receipt, bring it over to the slaughterer and then pay the slaughterer for his work. The same applied when a butcher slaughtered cattle. The “korovke”-money was meant to be spent on the upkeep of the beit-midrash, the bathhouse, etc. However, things were somewhat different: the cloisters stood on the town's territory and therefore they belonged to the town and had to be maintained by the “oprave”. Even though there was not even one gentile in the self-governed community, the Jews with their meager money had to pay for the maintenance of the cloisters. The priest was appointed by the authorities and got his salary from the government. When the government claimed the money from the Jews who had the lease on the “korovke”, the first payment went to cover the needs of the cloister, and the gentiles were exempt from this duty. In truth, a small sum was spent to pay for the “oprave”'s scribe and town-elder and there was nothing left for the synagogue and beit-midrash. Thus the synagogue and beit-midrash were maintained thanks to private donations.

As was mentioned above, they would “ban” from time to time when there was over-bidding on the “korovke”. Such a case actually happened in Horodets. Once, S.H. who knew the real price of the “korovke”, sent a closed envelope with a down payment of a higher price than was fixed by the representatives, and the “korovke” was actually granted to him. That S.H. had a partner, a Jew from Kobryn. In short, the Horodetser community declared a ban on him, and made his life difficult until this buyer relinquished the “korovke” and lost his down payment.

That incident was engraved in the minds of the land-owners of Horodets and from that day on nobody bid more than the accepted price of the “korovke” and the “korovke” remained almost always in the hands of the same people.


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