by Eliezer Leoni
Translated by Amy Samin
1. The Old Cemetery
In HaMelitz from the year 5653, 9 February 1893, we read: Exactly when our Jewish brethren came to live and set down roots in this city is not known to any of its residents; the old registries that perhaps could have provided some information are not here, because in the large and terrible fire that befell the city thirty-six years ago (in 1857), in which all of the houses and synagogues were destroyed, the records burned as well.
In our estimation, Jews settled in this area approximately 500 years ago. Although there is no direct evidence of this, there is the evidence of graves and remnants of ancient tombstones in the cemetery. To this day, there are ancient tombstones in the Ancient Cemetery (there are three cemeteries here: the New, the Old, and the Ancient), some at least three hundred years old, and doubtless what was intended to be a monument simply collapsed into a heap of ruins under the weight of the years. It could be that they were first put there at the time the first Jews arrived in the area.The Old Cemetery is practically the only one from which it is possible to learn the nature and the essence of the city. Its reputation is engraved in Paleolithic, ancient tombstones. Accumulated and buried in those unhewn stones is the first information about the generations of authors and wise men who lived in our city.
And though, in the year 1857, a horrible fire consumed the city and all of its historical records the registry of the Chevra Kadisha and some of the earliest tombstones still remain.
In the registry from the year 5482 (1722), we read a brief description of the early days of the city. The historian of the Chevra Kadisha writes: The city of Kovel is an ancient one, surrounded by the cities in the Volyn region, where some of the earliest great rabbis, brilliant Jews, settled - the heads of yeshivas of that generation. The greatest genius of his generation, Rabbi Yitzhak, son of the brilliant Rabbi Natan (son of the rebbe) Shimshon Shapira, was the head of the yeshiva in the holy community of Kovel sometime around 1577; also the brilliant rabbi, the great, the Hassid, our teacher the rabbi Yehuda Yudel, author of the book Kol Yehuda was head of the rabbinical court in the city and the great genius, the wonder of the generation, our teacher the rabbi Yosef
Yaski (the head of the rabbinical court and master of the yeshiva, author of the book Yesod Yosef was one of his sons, the four cedars he planted in Israel, Cedars of Lebanon, great Torah scholars. To our great sorrow, the tombstones of his sons have been lost from the cemetery, for it was the custom in the city at that time to make the tombstones from wood.
From this brief historical review we learn upon which foundation stones the Jewish community of the city was based: rabbis, great scholars, the wonders of the generation, wise men, the authors of books, and the greatest of them all was the head of the yeshiva, Rav Shimshon Shapira, who lived 379 years ago. But that rabbi was not the, the creator of the spiritual world of our city. There were great, wise men who came before him, but their names have been lost because it was not the custom to leave carved records; rather they created tombstones from wood and the passage of time brought about their destruction.
Heplio-lithography, that is, the etching of words onto ancient tombstones is itself of interest, because by such means we can learn the wording on tombstones from past generations. Its most essential value and importance is that it allows us to reconstruct the spiritual portrait of the city in its first centuries of existence.
We provide here the text from several ancient tombstones from the Old Cemetery whose importance lies in the things they can teach us about the history of our city.
Here Lies / Rabbi Shmuel, return in peace / A judge of Israel who knows every hidden sign / A priceless gem, our teacher the rabbi [unknown] and our Sages the brilliant / Hasid the exalted Shmuel, son of the rabbi, the great tamarisk, our teacher the rabbi Mordechai Margalit / Whose soul ascended in purification to Heaven on 1 Elul 5494. / May his soul be bound in the bonds of everlasting peace.This rabbi, who was in all likelihood the son of the famous Rabbi Margalit, died in the year 1733, that is to say, 223 years ago.
Here Lies / He who went to his eternal rest / The honorable rabbi, the great light, the well-known Yeshiah / Baharab, the great tamarisk, our teacher the rabbi of blessed memory / Was gathered to his Maker and returned his soul to God / on Sunday 10 Sivan 5484 / Today his soul will be bound up in the bonds of eternal life / In the shadow of God he will await the arrival The words engraved on this tombstone stop with the word arrival because the remainder is buried in the ground. This rabbi died in 1723, that is to say, 233 years ago.
Here Lies / The wife and devout rebbetzin / M. Yenta, daughter of our teacher the rabbi Shneor / Feibush. She died on 12 Kislev 5506 / and her modest daughter Mrs. Leah / daughter of Shimon died on the day The remainder is erased, and it is only possible to learn that the name of the rabbi was Shimon. This rabbi's wife, the daughter of Rabbi Shneor-Feibush, died in 1745, that is, 211 years ago.
In the year 5372 / Here rests Aharon son of our teacher the rabbi / Rav Yitzhak of blessed memory 7 Nisan / this month will be a sign for you / called the first of the months of the year / buried a Hasid, leader and head of Dorot-Olam The remainder is sunken into the earth. According to this tombstone, it appears that he was one of the employers of that era. It is impossible to identify his place of birth because the tombstone is sunken in to the ground. This tombstone is from the year 1611, that is, 345 years ago.
Here Lies / a yeshiva rabbi / We mourn the beauty which is rotting in the earth. / Our wonderful teacher the rabbi Yehuda Leib son of the rabbi and teacher Aharon / his soul is in the garden of peace.This tombstone had also sunk halfway into the earth in 1900, and it was impossible to copy everything that was etched there. The tombstone is from 1748, or 208 years ago.
Here Lies / Miriam who died and was buried / daughter of the righteous judge, our teacher Chaim HaLevy of blessed memory / 12 Nisan 5588.This tombstone stood by the shteibel, and next to it more tombstones were found. By all signs, there were quite a few graves there. This tombstone is from 1827, 129 years ago.
These tombstones confirm the tradition of the city elders, because in the earlier generations the city was populated by wise men and brilliant scholars, who were known collectively as the Wise Men of Kovel. The city of Kovel was a metropolis of Torah and wisdom. Those who served as its rabbis were exalted scholars.
The great preacher of blessed memory, Rabbi Avraham of Turiysk, author of the book Magen Avraham (Shield of Abraham), praised those geniuses lavishly, and said, In the two old cemeteries of Kovel one may discern a Sanhedrin, for in their dust are concealed and held the wise, the sagacious, and the brilliant.
Even if we assume that the Magid from Turiysk was speaking of a small Sanhedrin, one that had
only twenty-three members, and not a Great Sanhedrin with seventy-one, the righteous man's words prove that the city was filled with wise men and authors.
2. The Transition from Town to City
In the year 1847 there were 2,647 Jews in Kovel. Fifty years later, in 1897, that number had grown to 8,521; in other words, during that period the Jewish population of Kovel more than trebled in size.
In HaMelitz from 1893, Heinech Geller writes that in that year the number of residents of the city was fifteen thousand, and most of them were Jews. Geller's testimony is authentic and there is no reason to doubt his credibility; based on that we can say that in a half-century's time the city's Jewish population increased more than five-fold.
What caused this growth? Just as with the soul of man, whose purpose cannot be fully investigated, also in the material world, in economics, unknown factors operate which cannot be deciphered. Even if we do not know the processes which brought about this rapid growth in the number of the city's Jews, there is one economic factor which is known completely and for a certainty, the laying of the second railroad line in Russia during those years.
From the time the tracks were laid, the city threw off its old form and reinvented itself. Almost magically, wide, paved roads began appearing in the city, including the beautiful Beit HaNetivot Street, along which the houses were built in the new style. Next to the old city, whose aging houses were decaying and whose streets were small and narrow, there arose a fresh new city on the sands full of energy and beauty. Alongside the new houses and streets there arose a new Jewish settlement in the city, brimming with life.
This metamorphosis, this major change in the character of the city, came about thanks to the actions of an exceptional man of many achievements Yaacov-Aharon Entin of blessed memory, who was the contractor for the railroad.
Entin settled in Kovel more than one hundred and twenty years ago. He was originally from the city of Romaniv in the Mohilov Region, near the city of Lyady. He was a Chabadnik, an enthusiastic follower of Rabbi Menachem-Mendel, author of the Tzemach Tzedek and the grandson of Rabbi Shneur-Zalman, the founder of the Chabad movement of Hasidism.
Entin had a friendly relationship with the prince Korsakov-Dondukov of Romaniv, and thanks to his recommendation the railroad tracks were given over to him.
Before he received the job, Entin traveled to see the Tzemach Tzedek [Righteous Scion] and receive his blessing. The rabbi blessed him, and added that a great future good would come to the Jews of the city because of the railroad line and help would come from the heavens.
|Reb Yaacov Entin of Blessed Memory
Entin was a grand, wealthy man whose worth was about half a million rubles. As an intelligent student, he knew well the saying, If I am only for myself, what am I? He therefore invested much of his wealth in large building projects, in order to provide income and occupation to the Jewish laborers in the city. That was the stimulation, the galvanizing force, which drove him to build the 30 large barracks for the Kovelski folk. The laborers who worked on those projects were mostly Jews. Not for nothing did the workshop owners weep, saying, Who will provide us with work if Reb Yaacov-Aharon is gone?
On 29 Tevet 5658, in the magazine HaTzfirah, Heinech Geller described this man thusly: The deceased was an elder and the pride of the community, always the first to give in every matter of charity, God-fearing and honest
as any man. His heart was as wide as an open hall, and he improved the lot of many paupers, providing them with an escape from their poverty. His home was always open to the poor and those going through difficult times, and they were treated like family. He never ate bread alone, without inviting someone in need to share his meal. No matter how great his wealth, his heart was never proud, and he was humble; he always gave a warm reception to any poor person who asked for his help. He paid for the weddings of many impoverished orphans, and he never sent widows away empty-handed, always taking care of their financial needs and their peace of mind.
The deceased loved his people with all of his heart and soul, and the holy land was his heart's desire; he always yearned to settle there. Every year, he sent a great deal of money to every charitable institution in Eretz Yisrael. He was concerned about the Hebrew laborers, ensuring they had a place to earn their livelihood, and was heavily invested in building without any benefit to himself, but rather only for the purpose of providing work for the Hebrew laborers.Entin died on 17 Tevet 5658 (1898) at the age of 77. Merchants left their shops, and laborers were absent from their work, in order to attend his funeral. The stores were closed, and the teachers left their cheders and all as one man came to pay their last respects to the deceased. No one, not even the city elders, had ever seen such a funeral.
Entin lived on Old Vakzalna Street. He built a synagogue in his yard which was called the Beit Midrash of Entin. His wife, Nechama Entin, was exceptional in the generosity of her heart and her concern for impoverished yeshiva students. For that purpose, she built a yeshiva with her own money, a wonderful house of prayer; all expenses were paid for from her own pocket. That house of study was the only one of its kind in the city.
By Yaacov Teitelkar
(from the Way of Life of Kovel)
Translated by Amy Samin
The city of Kovel widespread was its renown. A son of Kovel who traveled abroad and was asked about his origins would be absolutely certain to elicit a joyful reaction: Ah, Kovel! I know it, I know it Indeed, I have been there Not because Kovel was an important strategic and commercial crossroads near the main Warsaw Lublin Kiev road, needed by one and all. Kovel was close to the heart of every Jew, the city was like a mother of the Jewish people, a campus devoted to the purity of tradition and the original popular-national Jewish way of life. There was no movement towards an imitation of the corrupt goyish culture The mother tongue ruled in the home, on the street, in society, and no Jewish child heard goyish except from the mouth of the Sabbath goy who came, wearing a thick sarmiga, to serve the Jews on Shabbat by extinguishing the candles in the candelabra, filling the samovar, and gulping down the first cup of cholent with a slice of bread and on the eve of Yom Kippur, affixing the wax candles in their holders
in the synagogue and replacing them when they melted away from the heat. Or they would hear the foreign tongue on market day, when the farmers from the nearby villages would gather, blocking the streets of the city with their carts loaded with wood and merchandise. The Jewish peddlers and the housewives would walk between the wagons, inspecting the chickens and scouting out goods, handling everything as if they'd already bought it. The farmers leave their womenfolk sitting in the wagons and go off to wander through the marketplace and stopping to peddle their wares in the stores. Seven merchants grab hold of one goy, crying Listen! and begin describing their merchandise in a language that is half goyish and half Yiddish. There is no doubt that the goyim learned a little Yiddish, and dressed up their own language with a bit of the language of the Jews, ending up speaking goyyiddish.
Nevertheless, the Jews of Kovel never caught on to Yiddishism. When the waves of the revolutionary anti-tsarist movement arrived at the start of the 20th century on the shores of Kovel, there was a whole new spirit. The youth of Kovel began to prepare vigorously for the struggle against the tsar, and the workers began to organize for the class struggle with the bourgeoisie. When the political parties aligned with socialism, Yiddishism and anti-Zionism began their activity; all of that movement resembled nothing more than foam on the waves, and there was no fundamental change in the everyday activity of Kovel. The Yiddish school, which had been founded by the Bundists as a counter-weight to the schools founded on the Tarbut system and to the Talmud Torah, couldn't compete and was closed. Most of the workers the tailors, the shoe makers, and the carpenters who were caught up in the socialist idea of this world, and who prepared for the class struggle in order to improve the economic situation of the proletariat, did not stop considering themselves completely faithful sons of Israel, and continued to visit the house of study morning and evening and to listen to the proletarian speaker, the excitable Yosman whose words were as pearls of wisdom, and whose harsh remarks preached of the world to come, kosher Judaism, and national loyalty. And when the time came to select a school for their sons, they did not hesitate to choose the Talmud Torah and the Tarbut school And so the contribution of the Kovel youth to the Zionist pioneer movement and the rising tide of aliyah to the homeland was enormous.
Independent pioneering kibbutz cells were founded. Even the frailest of youths, pupils of the schools and the Hebrew gymnasia, girded their loins, took up saws and axes in their hands and set out for preparation to the astonishment of their parents, who did not understand this insanity of their sons: why did they want to compete with the goyim, hewers of wood, bearers of water, to ruin themselves with hard work, with the shameful toil of a day laborer, at a time when, thank God, nothing was lacking in the home. A few even sailed to a foreign land, suffering shortages and overcoming all kinds of obstacles and difficulties, waging the war against their parents, and preparing themselves with self-sacrifice for the building of the homeland.
Nothing changed during the days of the First World War, nor the days of the occupation of Kovel by the Germans of Wilhelm, who did not prevent commercial and economic negotiations with the Jews, in order to take advantage of their initiative and talent for supplying provisions for their army. For their part, the Jews did not refrain from taking advantage of the rights given to them by the commandants and the highly-placed clerks with respect to their trades and professions (from whence arose the fatal confidence during the days of World War II that, once again, during the occupation by Hitler, things would not be so bad for them; for this reason most of the Jews of Kovel were unwilling to leave the city ). Also for this reason, they accepted the bad conditions, since they weren't too awful. For example, the Germans were distressed by the annoying problems of hygiene and cleanliness. For this reason, the Wilhelmian Germans were unwilling to allow the mountains of refuse and garbage outside the crowded wooden houses in the lanes of the city, and nor the filth in the streets that had been the norm, nor yet on the lack of public restrooms. They began a program of public repairs and cleaning, and the goyim the yekkim [slang for Germans] never quite understood that the Jew, whose entire being was occupied with matters on a completely otherworldly level, did not have time for such mundane matters. Not only that, according to their habits and in their own special way, they began to investigate the internal matters of the Jews, to pass laws, give instructions and make lists of things the Jews were told to do, with fixed dates for bathing and laundering, and specific instructions for the use of candlesticks for the Sabbath candles in order to prevent fires. In spite of their efforts, none of the Jews followed their orders, for they only obeyed the instructions they received from God.
The Germans had less work to do in the Zand quarter (so called because it was built upon sandy ground) of Kovel which, not only from a topographical but also cultural-social standpoint, represented the center of advancement in the city. As opposed to the crowded wooden houses of the city there were stone houses, arranged along paved roads with clean sidewalks, including many of the city's public institutions: the old and new stations; the Niebieski Prospect (the new Vokzalni Street) the romantic promenade for the young couples of the city; cinema houses; the newly-repaired bathhouse,; the Projenski synagogue for the aristocracy of the city, and the synagogue of the Zand the center of religious, cultural-commercial life, the center for ritual objects of the Jews of the sands at the service and under the management of the famous beadle-mohel Reb Pinchas; the luxury shops with their modern showcase windows, the printing houses, the post office, and the magistrat [municipality]. When the Germans left the city in 1919, it was possible to find signs of renovations and decorations in the German style next to the houses of the Zand, and woven huts of German design, which the Jews of the Zand chose to imitate. Almost nothing remains now of the German influence in the city The proud Poles who inherited the place of the Germans in World War I, and were the lords of the land when they took control of the eastern Ukraine,
imposed their own culture on the occupied population, spreading a net of systematized assimilation by means of the creation of a chain of elementary schools at which in the beginning attendance was optional but later became mandatory. There were more than a few parents who preferred the practical value of be a man outside and a Jew at home, who sent their sons and daughters to the Polish schools, and the Polish language began to take root in Jewish neighborhoods, becoming a symbol of the bon ton (cultured, well-educated high society). However, the despotic Poles could not defeat the determination of the Jews of Kovel to continue to maintain their traditional, nationalist lifestyle, even when the anti-Semitic Polish government refused to provide support for their educational institutions. Instead, the Jews themselves contributed the funds from their own pockets for two Tarbut schools the Herzliya School in Zand and the school named after Dr. Klomel in the city. Not only that, they did not rest until they had, with their own power, established an original Hebrew gymnasia in a splendid building in the center of town, where hundreds of faithful and devoted pioneers were educated in the idea of independence and statehood in their homeland.
Neither were the Jewish youths frightened by the new Polish decrees, which worsened daily and forbade Jewish nationalism. They established cells and training kibbutzim [collective farms] for work and aliyah [moving to Eretz Yisrael] and overcame the lack of accessibility and the limitations, taking to the streets of the city every year with spectacular ceremonies in celebration of Jewish holidays and demonstrating their strong desire to preserve the continuance of Jewish history and tradition.
In the last years before World War II and the victimization of a people, the Polish rulers became more and more harsh, forbidding all nationalist activity and celebratory public ceremonies, but they were no match for the stratagems of the youth against the worsening restrictions of the government. Their strength never lessened, and their resolve never weakened.
The Jews did not change their attitude during the start of World War II, when the Polish government was destroyed and was subordinated to the Soviet rule. It was difficult for the Jews of Kovel to withstand the deep cracks in the wall of their nationalism made by the Bolsheviks, with their fundamental and revolutionary economic, cultural and national differences. Some of the changes included the destruction of private commerce, the closure of the Tarbut schools and the Talmud Torah, and the establishment of communist schools in their place, and the sabotage thereby inflicted by the government on the way of life of the Jews, harming the soul of the Jewish child to the sorrow of the nationalists, the requirements of the cooperatives and their organization, which dissuaded the Jewish laborer from observing the Sabbath and celebrating his holidays by overworking him. All of this depressed and subdued the Jew's spirit, and perhaps because of this it is possible to see why the Jews of Kovel refused to leave the city at the onset of hostilities between the Germans and the Russians, when they were given the opportunity to flee to the Soviet Union, with the sword of Hitler hanging over their heads
Normally, the Jews accepted the Russian Bolsheviks, seeing them as rescuers from the threat of the German-Polish war, from the atrocities of the constant bombings and the fear of hooligans in the intervening days between the collapse of Poland and the expected German victory. Since during that time the Russians did not impose the rules of the communist government, the Jew was able to live in peace, and private commerce was able to operate together with the government cooperatives. The Jew knew how to manage, to go his own way in the tremendous national Bolshevist stream, which bathed them in comfortable waters in the midst of the Jewish nationalist-populist way of life of the Jews of Kovel and they lacked for nothing. That is, until the German Soviet war broke out and the Soviets rushed to leave the city, leaving the Jews in the maw of the insane, ravaging Nazi beast and their lives were consumed. May their memories be blessed forever!
by L. Hazan
Translated by Amy Samin
It is heartbreaking to recall the many Jewish communities of Eastern Europe that were destroyed and lost in the deluge of blood.
The heart breaks many times over for the Jewish community that you once knew and where you once spent days and years, where you lived with people in joy and sorrow, at work and at rest, with hopes and aspirations. Together with them you longed for your homeland, with them you laid the foundation for building a people in our land, creating a culture, and reviving the language; but they were not able to see this dream come to life, because of the hand that was sent to destroy, which cut off their lives and brought them an agonizing death, while their eyes searched for help that did not come: perhaps someone will save us. But rescue did not come; dark despair covered everything, bringing with it horrible death.
How much Torah and wisdom, how much activity and thought, initiative and industriousness, how much Jewish intelligence and Jewish kindheartedness and feeling and devotion, how much vitality and spiritual and corporeal beauty were lost and will never return. Those who survived the Holocaust, the likes of which had never before been seen, ponder with broken hearts filled with anger, How could it have happened? How could the pure have fallen? How could such an abomination have taken place so openly, and the heavens were indifferent, and the Throne of God didn't shake and collapse?
Kovel, Kovel, the city and home of Jewish Volhynia
Forests and swamps shared the vast plain that sprawled over hundreds of kilometers. Not mountains nor hills, but one plateau, and among the forests and the swamps, towns large and small populated by Jews, and among them Kovel, the big city.
There were days, long ago, when the God-fearing Jews of Kovel wandered the plain, strong of faith and virtuous, spending time in the courtyards of the righteous, gathered together as a flock, requesting protection from danger. Calamity, the evil impulse, disease where else could the Jews find protection, if not in the shade of such righteous ones?
Jews would sit and stand in their stores, waiting for shoppers, discussing matters relating to the house of study, criticizing the rabbi and the cantor, and complaining about the difficult times that had befallen them.
The border in those days was the river, and it was as if it had always told the city, To here and no further! and so the city gathered into itself, its streets and alleys, the marketplace and the shops, the houses of study and the cemetery. On the other side of the river were sand dunes, fields and gardens, and all other things with which no Jew had any contact.
But when the railroad tracks were laid and on the other side of the river a large train station was built from which trains set out for all parts of the country, their cars filled with lumber, linen, and leather, and arrived bringing all kinds of merchandise, the city began spreading out towards the railroad station. The Jews passed the watery border, built homes, warehouses and shops on the sands, and made a comfortable life there. But Jews cannot live without a house of study; so on the sands were built new houses of study and the sounds of prayer and Torah and filled the air.
Time passed and the seasons changed, and the Enlightenment spread out into every area, and the winds of change blew through the Jewish streets. In its heart, the Diaspora began to tire of exile and the longing for far-off Eretz Yisrael took hold, transforming into real activity. The Jews of Kovel were among the first in Poland to form strong ties with the ancient homeland of the people. Those who were experts in constructing on foreign sands thought about building a home on the sands of the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. They sent their sons to nationalist-pioneering youth movements which operated on behalf of the land, the sounds of the Hebrew language were heard in homes and on the streets, and Hebrew schools were founded, the crown jewel of which was the Hebrew Gymnasia.
Altogether, there were six or seven gymnasias in Poland, and one was in Kovel! Not for nothing did that happen, nor did random fate have a hand in the selection of that city
as the home for one of the Hebrew buildings in a foreign country. The groundwork had been done, the desire was strong, and feelings were deep, all of which provided the strength to do battle with the state educational authorities, which regarded Hebrew educational institutions with a disapproving eye, opposed their establishment and harassed them as much as they were able. It was those things that gave the strength to overcome the internal obstacles and inhibitions, the lack of funds and support required for a high school, which had many expenses, and with empty hands but full hearts those involved did many great and wondrous things, producing class after class of young men and women, who were talented and prepared to go and build Eretz Yisrael and to live and renew the culture.
We, whose luck spared us the Holocaust, allowing us instead to sit and watch the building of Eretz Yisrael, know very well the part Kovel had in that building. That praiseworthy combination of vivacious Jews rooted in the past with education and common sense was useful for understanding the real, future needs of the people for a safe landing on the promised shores.
Bitter destiny brought a cruel end to that work; many of Kovel's Jews never arrived on that shore. Pioneers of spirit and pioneers of deed no longer come from Kovel to Eretz Yisrael. The bloodbath that drowned the community left no remnants; the heart breaks for the dear Jews who were lost and for Eretz Yisrael, which was denied a vital force for its revival.
And if we are speaking about the Jews of Kovel it is impossible to refrain from mentioning, in pain and in sorrow, the principal of the Hebrew gymnasia, Yosef Avrekh, may God avenge his blood. Ill-fated due to a physical disability, he was a devoted educator who also worked for the public good together with his friend, the afore-mentioned Asher Frankfort, in many different activities.
Those two were always the first to take action, and they were also the first to be touched by the unclean hands of the ravening German beasts that extinguished their souls, and after them the Holocaust came to the entire splendid Jewish community of the city of Kovel, one among the many Jewish communities, near and far.
Who will count the number of the good Jews of the city, and of the many faithful people, of the innocent children and the pure mothers, of the young men and women, for whom we had such great hopes, and our hope was lost? Who will give us recompense?
My heart, my heart is with you, Jewish Kovel, and with the other Jewish cities in Eastern Europe, that were destroyed and no longer exist.
Is there comfort? Is there reparation for their blood?
By Baruch Bork
Translated by Amy Samin
The population of Kovel was made up of Jews, Ukrainians, and Poles. Until the resurrection of Poland, the number of Poles was so tiny that even a child could count their number. In commemoration of their names: the priest Shovelski (a friend to the Jews), the pharmacists Prejmovski, Eismond, Friedrichson, and a number of workshop owners.
The small, paltry church stood empty, even on Sundays. It only filled on the holiday of Christmas, when the Polish landowners from the surrounding area would come to pray.
With the outbreak of World War I and the establishment of the Polish government in the city, there were radical changes in the composition of the city's population. When the Russians had left the city in 1915, many Russians and Ukrainians left with them and Kovel had become in essence a city of Jews. With the German occupation of the city, Poles began to appear, and with the establishment of the country of Poland the city was flooded, literally, with Poles. Even so, the Jews remained the majority, with the Poles coming after. Ukrainians made up a small minority.
The Poles and the Ukrainians lived on the outskirts of the city, and the Jews in the center. The entire center of town was free of Christians. In the center of town were the government buildings and the municipal institutions. The treasury office, the offices of the regional governor, the health maintenance organization, insurance offices, city management, fire station, the P.K.O. Bank, the post office and the Sejmik. There were also a few Russian and Polish doctors and a few pharmacies.
Close to the outbreak of World War II, when on the Polish street the slogan birds of a feather flock together (swój do swego), which carried anti-Semitic undertones at that time, was the order of the day, a couple of Polish department stores opened in the Zand [so called because it was built on sandy ground] quarter of the city.
The relationships between the Jews and their Christian neighbors were normal; it's even possibly to say friendly, aside from the Andeki youth who were openly anti-Semitic and gathered in the
engineering school (miernicza szkoła). In that school was raised and educated the hangman of the Jews of Kovel, Artur Schultz may his memory be cursed, who served as an officer in the Gestapo and was the person in charge of the aktia [roundup of the Jews for transport to death camps]. With the increase in the number of Poles in the city, the small, paltry church barely had room for its worshippers, so the Poles, together with the priest Prolet Snervarovski (who was, by the way, a good friend to the Jews) applied for permission to build a large, splendid church in the Zand quarter.
In the 1920s there were clashes between the Jewish youth of the city and the Polish youth which reached such serious dimensions as to involve crimes literally on the scale of pogroms. Only thanks to the intervention of the priest Prolet Snervarovski with the starosta [elected leader] Kovichi and the commander of the foot soldiers of Battalion 50 which was stationed in Gorky, were the Jews of Kovel saved from calamity. Indeed, with every threat that posed a danger to the Jews of the city, the priest used his authority to nullify the decree.
Most of the Polish population was made up of laborers and clerks, though most of the educated Poles would advance to other positions. Almost all of them belonged to the P.P.S. [Polish Socialist Party] and the N.P.R., such that the Andeki Party with OSAN did not have a large influence on the life of the city.
The majority of the Jewish population was religious. The fathers belonged to Agudah and Mizrahi. Those who did not hold political views were simply Chassids of Trisk, Kotsk, Lubavitch, Stolin, Karlin, Neschiz, Steppen, and Radzin. Even most of the artisans and workshop owners of the older generation were religious. I remember a story people would tell about a man, a ladies' tailor, named Itchi Previn, who before his death instructed his family to put his worktable, at which he had toiled for 60 years, into his grave with him. When the Messiah came, the table would testify that he had never taken the leftover scraps of fabric for his own use.
It seems to me, that if someone were looking for one of the world's lamed vavnikim [36 righteous men], he could be assured of finding him amongst the workshop owners of Kovel.
The younger generation was freer in their activity, and mostly concentrated in the Zionist movements: General Zionists, Hitachdut, Poale Zion Left, Hechalutz, Hechalutz Hazair, Hashomer Hazair, Beitar, Gordonia and HaOved. A not insignificant number belonged to the Bund, and only a handful joined the communist party. Nevertheless, all of them, except for the communists, prayed in the synagogue on the Sabbath and it is hardly necessary to mention that they were quite devoted in their prayers during the Days of Awe.
The youths who, while at their clubs, released themselves from the burden of the mitzvot [religious commandments] would, upon their return home, behave like kosher, God-fearing Jews. Only here and there could you find a family whose son walked about bareheaded, but those cases were quite rare. The majority of the Jews of the city ended their lives in the framework of religion and tradition.
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