Lutsk after the First World War
Yehuda Papir, Washington
Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund
In January 1921 I was delegated to travel to Lutsk by the Washington division of the Lutsker Landsmanschaft [organization of people from the same city or town] for Relief Work in Lutsk and its surroundings. As a result, after an absence of 14 years, I was given [the opportunity] to visit my birth city where my parents, Yankl Grober and Chana Slawa, lived, along with my brother Shmuel Papir and his wife and children, my sister and her family and many uncles and aunts and their many branched families. I lived in deep longing for the beautiful landscape of Lutsk and its surroundings where I had spent many happy satisfied years, despite everything during the time of my 14-year separation from my old and dear home. Baked deeply in my heart were the Lutsk rivers and forests where, in summer, I swam and spent much time on various excursions in the area; and in winter I skated on the ice, for which I was given slaps and warning by my father, of blessed memory, that I should not do what Hasidic boys were not permitted to do.
On the way to Lutsk, I spent several weeks in Warsaw where I arranged the appropriate formalities that were connected with transferring money that American relatives had sent to their families in Lutsk. This matter was connected with the issue of money and the transfer of dollars into marks in agreement with the existing financial laws in Poland. A great deal of money designated for the Lutsker victims to cover the transportation expenses for immigrating to America remained in the possession of the Joint [Distribution Committee]. The rest of the money in Polish currency was transferred to the remaining victims in Lutsk. All together, this made a round sum of around a hundred thousand dollars. Around 40,000 dollars were exchanged to Polish currency at 610 marks to the dollar. This money was packed into a large crate, which took up the entire area of the Joint auto. I had to sit on the crate and this drew attention to me from the Jews in the Warsaw streets on which we had to drive on the way to Lutsk. The Nalewker Jews particularly marveled at this picture of an American Jew sitting in an auto and his head reaching heaven. At the last minute I understood the comedy of the situation, exited the auto and traveled to Lutsk by train. Later, it appeared that I should goyml bentshn [a prayer of thanks said after completing a dangerous journey], because outside of Koval, the auto was shot at by bandits, who suspected that there surely had to be a large sum of money in the crate. If I had traveled with the auto, my head surely would have been a good target for the bandits' bullets.
I arrived in Lutsk around 12 o'clock at night. The night was very dark. At the train station I was taken by an izwoszczik [coachman] a convert [to Christianity] who I knew from my childhood years. He also recognized me. We drove into the city and began looking for the house of my parents. However, the darkness was so great that this was not so easy for us. We drove around the same place many times and were completely unable to find the right place. With luck, my parents heard our voices and they ran out to welcome me. Understandably, the joy of our meeting was very great after such a long time of having not seen each other.
I spent many months in Lutsk, during which I had the opportunity to see the terrible post-war need of the majority of the Jewish population in Lutsk. It demanded an
extraordinary strength of endurance and much human understanding for the suffering of the Jews in Lutsk.
On the second day, the vehicle with the chest of money also arrived. Because of the need for security, I did not bring the chest into my parents' home because this would have put them in danger of being attacked by bandits and looters, but I took it to the building of the kehile [organized Jewish community] where there was an iron safe. Two nightguards were placed there who watched the money to which the hundreds of Jewish families in Lutsk had turned with hope.
In the course of my three-week stay in Warsaw, the concerned families were informed about the money transfers that I had brought with me. On the first day of my arrival in Lutsk, my parents' house was besieged by hundreds of Jews. There also was great jostling at the kehile building. The payments of money took place under the rigorous supervision of the distinguished Jewish men of the city. Because of the great jostling around the table where the payouts at the kehile took place, the kehile-shamas [community caretaker] began to drive them out of the premises. However, I immediately intervened, calmed the crowd a little and asked them to behave in a way that the payouts could take place in an appropriate atmosphere. The payouts lasted several weeks. But, alas, many remained unsatisfied. As the American saying: Try to satisfy everyone and you will surely satisfy no one. Thus it was in this case. Each one of the institutions present in Lutsk claimed leadership and precedence. However, the monies were distributed with impartiality and this was the way the distribution had to take place. Everyone had to be satisfied.
The reason for the dissatisfaction lay in the instability of the Polish currency. Several Jews actually wanted us to distribute dollars, not believing that the Joint, according to the existing law, had exchanged the dollars for marks. Even now, several tens of years after my mission, I want to make use of the opportunity to again assert that I carried out my work perfectly. My conscience has remained clear to this day.
After finishing the payment came the second part of my mission: completing all formalities that were connected with the immigration to America of the Jews from Lutsk and the surrounding areas. All of the Jewish immigrants had to assemble from various small cities and shtetlekh [towns], with their families, of which many children had ringworm on their small heads and they had to be cured. They were sent to the hospital in Warsaw. Much effort and energy was used in preparing the trips and passport formalities in the Polish offices. No less effort was placed with the American consul, who after my profuse sweating in various Polish offices, began a new investigation. He suspected that the money [I brought] for emigration was from a somewhat unclean source and it was connected with a certain intrigue. With great effort, I worked to persuade him that I had been involved in a communal mission and with humanitarian help.
After spending seven months in Lutsk, I succeeded in gathering 50 children from various parents. I rented a special train car for them and transferred them to Warsaw. Their parents traveled on separate trains. Obtaining the visas and passports took a great deal of time and took place accompanied by many bizarre situations. The instructions of the American relatives were such that the monies were designated only for emigration. In a case when someone [decided not to go], the money had to be sent back. Older girls, whose relatives wanted to bring to America, saw it as a suitable opportunity to get married. Matches and weddings actually quickly took place to which I was invited more than once. This caused me great embarrassment.
* * *
A particularly interesting chapter of communal and cultural work took place then. In addition to private money, I had 9,000 dollars that I had to distribute among various institutions.
There then existed in Lutsk various institutions of a diverse character. There were Zionist, Hebraist and Yiddishist institutions that had their specific needs and problems. It really demanded great tact in order to find the correct balance in the appropriate distribution of the 9,000 dollars that were at my disposal. I held many conferences and consultations with the representatives of the interested institutions to analyze the labyrinth of their tasks and their practical needs. Each of the Lutsk institutions claimed authority and merit. However, the money was sent completely impartially and that is how the distribution had to take place. Everyone had to be satisfied.
This was just then erev [the eve of] Passover. The great need because of the war threatened that hundreds of Jewish families would remain without matzos and other requirements for Passover. They demanded that I distribute a certain sum for this purpose. At that time, there were a considerable number of newly rich war-wealthy men who did not excel in the good traits of the pre-war wealthy men. They kept their purses closed under lock and key
and did not feel any responsibility to their fellow Jewish citizens who found themselves in need. Therefore, I demanded that these rich men should first tax themselves for this purpose and then I would contribute the same sum that they would collect. And thus the Jews were provided with the necessities for Passover.
The Jews who came to the Lutsk Jewish kehile for matzo for Passover made a frightful impression on me. I once knew them as good looking, rich and middleclass people. They were ruined by the war operations and had to stick out their hands for help. These scenes were etched so deep in my memory that I cannot forget them even today.
The city synagogue in Lutsk was found in very sad condition. Because of the war operations in that area, it was severely damaged. The back fence was completely ruined and open, because it actually served for an unclean purpose I appropriated a certain sum and the fence was erected, and other necessary repairs around the synagogue, were completed.
The two above-mentioned communal actions took a thousand dollars from me. The remaining 8,000 dollars were divided among the various institutions in Lutsk. Today, I cannot remember exactly how much each institution received. The Kultur-Lige [Culture League] was taken care of with two beautiful houses for its schools. A considerable sum also was distributed for the gymnazie [secular secondary school] and for the Tarbut [Zionist Hebrew language] schools. The pictures of these institutions were given to the museum in Bat Yam during my visit to Israel. I photographed all the Jewish institutions in Lutsk before departing from Lutsk. These pictures, which are found in the museum at Bat Yam, are a memorial of a once ebullient and lively Jewish community in Lutsk, where there is now only the mass grave of our dearest and nearest, annihilated by the Hitlerist beasts.
Binyamin Groschewsky, Tel Aviv
Translated by Sara Mages
In 5684 [1923/24], a group organized in Lutsk to buy land for settlement in Eretz Israel. The group numbered thirty-seven members, a sum of one thousand and two hundred pound sterling was collected, a committee was elected and I was appointed secretary. Two of the group members (Benger and Einbinder) traveled to Eretz Israel to purchase the land. They merged with other groups from Bialystok and Grodno and together bought the village of Menashih, a settlement between Haifa and Acre - an area of thirteen thousand dunams at a price of three pounds per dunam. They paid nine thousand pounds on account, and the balance had to be paid at the time of receiving the title deed.
However, it turned out that the groups of buyers could not meet their obligations. At that period of time the Polish government, with Grabski at its leader, imposed a heavy burden on the Jews, oppressed them financially and extorted heavy taxes from them. On the other hand, many administrative difficulties piled up in the execution of the sale. The land owners could not transfer the land to the buyers because it previously belonged to the Turkish government. After the [First] World War the British government took possession of the land and sold it at auction to the French Consulate. Because of all the complications, it was impossible to get the title deed and all the money that was paid as deposit was lost. Indeed, the matter was handed over to the lawyer, Eliash, but he was unable to get the money back. He received five hundred pounds as a fee, and nothing came of it.
This is how the attempt of Lutsk Jews to acquire land in Eretz Israel ended…
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